Personal Branding vs Security in the Online World

We all “build” ourselves a place in the world, our outward reflection. Previously, we defined it as your character, reputation, or status. Today, this would be termed a Personal Brand, “a widely-recognized perception or impression of an individual based on their experience, expertise, competencies, actions and/or achievements within a community…” While fundamentally the same principal, the way in which this is achieved has changed dramatically over time.

In the past (at least for my generation), the primary interactions that created this “image” were personal. We dealt with people, organizations, and institutions in person or via direct communication. A handshake, a discussion or a written letter gave clues as to who we were: well-spoken (or not); intelligent (or not); attractive (or not); etc.  We generally strove to put our “best foot forward,” although these interactions were often spontaneous, leaving significant room for missteps. The old adage, “You only have one chance to make a first impression” was resoundingly true.

Today, there are many more mechanisms through which these impressions are revealed, collectively they create an online social network. Since their inception in the early 2000s, they have paralleled, and in some respects exceeded, the pace of development of the internet itself. Social media has “evolved from a simple means of connecting with friends to a complex ecosystem of platforms and tools that shape our social interactions, influence our behaviors and opinions, and connect us to a global community.”

The original apps (e.g., Myspace) allowed people to connect with others based on common interests, location, and activities. These were closely followed by business-oriented platforms (e.g., LinkedIn) that focused on professional connections. User-generated content was then facilitated through apps like YouTube and Wikipedia. These were followed by more sophisticated programs like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that allowed individuals to share their lives with their friends and groups. They effectively allowed us to make our personal life public. There are now niche platforms that cater to specific desires or interests. A plethora of dating, gaming and hobby sites have sprung up as the patterns of group interactions have changed.

We now paint the persona we want to be to the outside world via the internet (I am a guilty party). We post lovely pictures of beautiful settings and happy people on our social media accounts (none of those family squabbles or personal failures allowed). I doubt the disheveled, “bed-head” photo ever makes int onto a dating sight.

Beyond disseminating the superficial nature of our existence, there are more concerning aspects of this new environment. Everyone is taking pictures of everything. It is easy to damage one’s image by a single flippant act that once sent to the cloud resides “forever.” Businesses and individuals can now find “damaging” information via a simple Google search.

In some respects, rather than creating a broader awareness that reduces time and space, bringing people together, social media has allowed for cultural fragmentation. It has exacerbated deep-seated divisions by creating “echo chambers” where people follow only like-minded content and hear only what they want to hear. We have seen the devastating impact of this trend in the contentious interaction in national politics.

As perceptions of bias increase, various actors have taken somewhat draconian measures to promote their perspective. Donald Trump started his own forum “TRUTH Social” to promote his views. This action is certainly within his rights as an individual to do. However, rather than strengthening open debate, these types of platforms have moved the needle towards censorship and radicalization. His terms of service state that “users may not “disparage, tarnish, or otherwise harm, in our opinion, us and/or the Site.” While this may be a form of censorship, it is a matter of personal choice rather than institutional control.

There is an even darker side to the ability to propagate information both widely and securely. The available alternatives for terrorists, organized criminals and (ordinary, law-abiding) citizens to communicate has proliferated with the growth in digital technology. Terrorists and other rouge elements have been able to plot and execute disruptive and deadly operations through readily available secure means.

It now appears that the recently leaked Pentagon documents allegedly by Airman Jack Teixeira may have occurred over a popular gaming communication platform (Discord). Significantly, the military itself was using it to engage with prospective Gen Z recruits. The Army even runs a “17,000-member chatroom for service members to discuss first-person shooter games, meet with career counselors and participate in what is called the ‘Army of Tomorrow.’” Despite being a low-level IT specialist, his job as a “cyber transport systems specialist” gave him access to a network hosting “top secret” information.

According to FBI charges, Teixeira purportedly used the classified material to impress the other (Gen-Z) users who’d joined the chatroom. Teixeira had apparently built an enthusiastic following as “O.G.,” portraying himself as a “gun-lover with a knowledge of combat strategy and deep access to military secrets.” Another Discord user stated, “O.G. had shared the documents to educate his peers and build social capital on a slice of the internet where he was king.”

The anonymity within this structure has led some “players” to adopt increasingly radical attitudes and behaviors. One VA Tech professor put it this way, “Young men who may not feel their life gives them cachet and importance, they’re trying to find that online . . . often by attaching themselves to the gravitas of war and combat…” Regardless of how one views the impact of online “war games,” they are definitely being used as a mechanism for promoting an individual’s desired public persona.

The military is now trying to put the genie back in the bottle. In what amounts to a blinding flash of the obvious, US Special Operations Command recently instructed service members: “Don’t post anything in Discord that you wouldn’t want seen by the general public.” They have published similar guidelines for other apps like TikTok, Twitch, and Tinder.

It is increasingly difficult to control a workforce that is facile with and unafraid of the modern digital world, as well as, naïve about the consequences of their actions.  The military services (particularly the Army) are experiencing significant difficulties in fulfilling recruiting goals. They must walk a fine line; maintaining security, while recognizing that young service members are unwilling to give up online habits they’ve held for a (relatively brief) lifetime.

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